On a Sunday morning in late October 1999, a small group of people is gathered together within the Spartan walls of a building simply called The Shed, in Port Royal, South Carolina to mark the creation of a new Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. The Rev. Jennifer Slade, from Greenville, SC is the guest minister in the portable pulpit. She looks out over a gathering of just over 30, very diverse, souls; some from southern states; some from northern states; and some lifelong locals.
Just a few weeks ago, in late October, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations with national offices in Boston, Massachusetts granted full membership to the Fellowship, and this is a Sunday for celebration. Thirty names are listed on the roster of founding members: Michael Baitz, Sam Ballenger, Barbara Entriken, Joann Fair, Erica Fourtnier, Gwen Gerber, Emily Grice, Frank Grice, Harriet Hilton, Marge Jarvis, Jim Key, Liz Key, Jim Koerber, Nancy Kobick, Ingrid and Howard Lander, Susanne Larsen, Liz McCaslin, Nancy Myers, Theresa Morris, Ric and Ellen Richards, Bob Ross, Caren Ross, David Russell, Penny Russell, Ann Sherva, Elodie and Jay Snyder, Dottie Van Brunt. This is a day to celebrate, but those gathered here know that it is by no means the beginning – nor the end – of this story about the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Beaufort.
Perhaps a good place to start the story is with Betty Chamlee. Since 1971 she had been an active member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Savannah. She is a Beaufort native with family roots in the community that dig all the way back to the 1700s. Her long interest in establishing a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Beaufort sprang from a strongly held belief that the denomination is a powerful and wonderful way of being religious. Her work with the Savannah congregation put her in contact with district and national leaders in the Unitarian Universalist Association, and when the Thomas Jefferson District Director visited Savannah, Betty was in a position to directly suggest – and argue for – the establishment of a new church in Beaufort.
At the same time a group of individuals with Unitarian Universalist backgrounds from many areas of the country, found each other living on Dataw Island, in Beaufort County. Meeting informally, they shared how much they missed their home churches, and began to talk about how beneficial it would be to have a church in Beaufort. Before long, the group made contact with the national offices of the Unitarian Universalists and asked how to establish a new church.
In 1998, seeing a clear opportunity, the Thomas Jefferson District leadership brought Betty Chamlee and the people from Dataw Island together, and asked Ms. Chamlee to shepherd the group through its infancy. The first organizational meetings were held at the Beth Israel Synagogue in Beaufort, SC. Soon after those organizational meetings, the group started to meet regularly at The Shed in Port Royal. Betty Chamlee was impressed with the diversity of the people who showed up. They were energetic and worked well together. They didn’t all know each other, but they were coming together to establish a church. They focused not only on getting organized, but also on understanding the kinds of commitment needed to create a church that would begin to meet the needs of people, who look at religion through principles, rather than creed.
Through a series of meetings and workshops, organized and/or led by Ms. Chamlee, congregants were nurtured and coached to understand the inner workings of the church. A workshop on lay-led worship stands out in Betty’s memory because it, “… became a beautiful worship service….” It was now clear to her that the group could sustain themselves through the long journey of lay-led worship, until a minister could be called.
Rev. Nan White, a former Presbyterian minister, moved to Beaufort in 1996, after having left the Presbyterian denomination where she had been raised, educated and ordained. “What do UU’s believe?” was the simple question she asked Marge Jarvis, of Dataw Island in the summer of 1999. Marge had just asked Rev. White if she would be interested in helping to start a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Beaufort. “We believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” were the words Marge chose to respond. This plain and direct answer spoke to Rev. White, and she immediately agreed to help. Later that day she went home and began to explore the Unitarian Universalist Association website. She found herself drawn to the Seven Principles that begin with the belief in, “The inherent worth and dignity of every person;” and end with, “Respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.” Nan found in the Unitarian Universalist theology the understanding that it is okay to struggle; in fact, it’s encouraged. You question and search to find out what you understand to be truth. Even now, 10 years later, she continues to study and reflect deeply on UU principles.
In November of 1999, Rev. White contacted the national Association about transferring her ordination, and the Unitarian Church in Statesboro, Georgia invited her to be their once-a-month minister. In 2001, the Unitarian Fellowship of Hilton Head called on Rev. White to be their consultant minister. Even as her ministerial duties increased, she continued to find time to stay in contact with the newly formed Beaufort Fellowship. Finally, in 2002, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Beaufort was in a position to ask Rev. White to serve as minister for 10 hours a week, to provide pastoral care, prepare worship services and sermons. Rev. White shepherded the congregation with adult education classes and experiences like EvenSong, Journey Toward Wholeness, and lay-led discussion groups. The Journey Toward Wholeness program is designed to recognize and address issues of oppression and racism. After being introduced to the program, the congregation voted to add a Journey Toward Wholeness representative to the Fellowship’s Board of Directors.
In October 2004, Rev. White became the half-time Minister of the Beaufort Fellowship. That same year Bernie Wright, the then Executive Director Penn Center on St. Helena Island, invited the Fellowship to have an administrative office in the Lathers building on the Penn Center campus. The opening of the new office was the launch of an enriching partnership to address human rights, civil rights and social justice issues, with this internationally renowned institution. It also brought an historic relationship full circle. Laura M. Towne was one of the founders of Penn School in 1862, and she was a Unitarian from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Once Rev. White completed her consulting ministry with the Hilton Head congregation in September of 2006, the Beaufort congregation was able to extend her hours to 3/4 time. Through her – and the Fellowship board’s – continued leadership, the congregation aspires to reach out and make its presence known, particularly for those who seek a liberal religious institution. In 2007, the Fellowship embarked on a series of “porch talks” with the goal of developing a clear mission statement. On December 9, 2007, the congregation adopted the following:
Our mission is to create a joyful sanctuary for spiritual and intellectual growth, embracing all souls in a nurturing community from which we go forth as activists for social justice and as stewards of the natural world.
The congregation has expressed its commitment to the larger community in a myriad of ways over the years with activities such as:
- Support of the launching of the Culinary Arts Program at the Technical College of the Lowcountry, through a Faith Based Initiative grant.
- Ongoing support of the nonprofit Marshview Organic Community Farm, a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), founded in 2008, on St. Helena Island. The Beaufort Fellowship Social Justice Committee helped the farm secure nonprofit status. The committee also helped to raise community support and awareness by among other things, contacting teachers in the local schools to recruit students for training on the farm. Members of the congregation also routinely volunteer labor on this innovative farm.
- Hosting Social Justice workshops, in concert with the Hilton Head Fellowship in 2005, to help members learn how to better serve the needs of the community.
- Hosting Free Trade Coffee House Concerts to promote public awareness of free trade coffee, by drinking it and selling it while a musical concert took place. Artists like Rebecca Folsom, Wild Carrot, and Meg Barnhouse performed in various places around the city between approximately 2004 and 2007.
- Participating in Family Promise, a national non-profit comprised locally of 27 churches, fellowships and synagogues in Beaufort County, who join together to offer housing and food to needy families, each week in a different church.
- For almost a decade, the Fellowship has awarded scholarships, named in honor of Laura M. Towne, to high school students in Beaufort who write essays on topics related to human rights.
- In May of 2008 Rev. White, the Thomas Jefferson District, and the Beaufort Fellowship, in partnership with Penn Center, organized the weekend-long Laura M. Towne celebration. A Friday evening sold-out concert, featuring singer/songwriter artists Rebecca Folsom and Jan Spencer, raised funds for the Marshview Organic Community Farm. On Saturday, an all-day anti-racism conference trained 25 Unitarian Universalists to be better allies for people of color. Saturday evening 27 members of the Fellowship supported the Penn Center 1862 Circle Gala with their contributions and attendance at the event, which was held at the Paris Island Lyceum. The weekend ended Sunday afternoon with the official presentation of the original Penn School bell. It had been sent to Laura Towne from friends in Philadelphia in 1863. Members of the Fellowship of Beaufort have pledged financial support for the restoration of the Bell and a replica of the Bell Tower, which is presently housed in the York Bailey Museum, on the Penn Center campus. In May of 2009, a second Laura M. Towne celebration was organized and conducted in partnership again with Penn Center.
- Individual members, and the congregation, have also supported many other organizations like Thumbs Up, Born to Read, HELP of Beaufort, and Mobile Meals.
To move toward a goal of owning a home of our own the church board empowered a property search committee to actively explore properties to purchase a building site or an existing church. In 2008, property was purchased on St. Helena Island on the site of the original Oaks Plantation, where Laura Towne held classes for the formerly enslaved Africans in 1862. That land was sold in 2009 back to a family member of the individual who sold the property to UUFB. Another property search committee was formed in 2010 that led to the purchase of the Sea Island Conference Center, 178 Sams Point Road, Lady’s Island where the congregation had met in earlier years. The congregation approved unanimously the purchase, and we became property owners on August 31, 2010. With a very active minister and congregation of 81 members, we are ready to move to a permanent home of our own.
A decade ago, 30 people met at The Shed in Port Royal and began a journey to learn more about what it means to create a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Later, services were held at the US Naval Hospital, the Sea Island Conference Center on Lady’s Island and the Wardle family YMCA. Sunday services are now held at 10 Am at 178 Sam’s Point Rd, Beaufort SC 29907. Nursery School and Religious Education classes for children are available. All are welcome. For information visit www.uubeaufort.org.
Commitment to the Greater Beaufort Community
Projects undertaken by our Fellowship since its inception have included raising the funds through a Faith Based Initiative grant to launch the Culinary Arts Program at Technical College of the Lowcountry; participation and hosting Social Justice workshops to learn how we can better serve the needs of our community; and presentation of Free Trade Coffee House Concerts. Our board is active in District and Unitarian Universalist Association leadership and on numerous committees. On July 1, 2008 one of our past board presidents, Jim Key, became president of the TJ District board of directors.
At the time of her induction to half-time ministry, Rev. White’s goal was to see the Beaufort and Hilton Head fellowships grow both in numbers and in relationship with each other and the broader community. Through Rev. White’s and the board’s leadership our congregation aspires to reach out and make our presence known, particularly for those who seek a liberal religious institution.
The congregation extended Rev. White’s hours to ¾ time in September 2006. In April 2007, Rev. White was installed as the UUFB minister in a formal service held on the campus of historic Penn Center. Rev. White was received into Full Fellowship with the UU Minister’s Association and the Unitarian Universalist Association in March 2008.